On Time Scarcity, 4: Letting The Mud Settle

Over the past three articles in this series I’ve touched on various manifestations of time scarcity in our lives: the constant feeling of not having enough time, the lure of overscheduling and the pull and toll our various electronic devices have on our attention and time.

I’ve talked about time blocking, and eating the ugliest frog first, aka getting the most important thing done first thing in the day, even if it means pushing meetings until later in the morning. After all if it works for Jeff Bezos, why not you, right?

I’ve also touched on using pen and paper to learn effectively, and made the case for using a paper planner, as in this New York Times piece on the subject.

I also touched on making the iPhone screen greyscale as the first line of defense in the war for our attention.

Most recently I talked about the Digital Minimalism “declutter” that was my January challenge (more on the outcome of that in a moment), and it’s this last portion that had me connecting dots on my regular walking meditation today.

I was an early convert to the Marie Kondo organization declutter, doing my first “tidy up purge” in 2014. If you're looking for a great summary of how to use the Marie Kondo method my friends at Happy DIY Home have this great KonMari checklist to get started.

What struck me on my walk earlier today was the fact that Ms. Kondo advocates deciding on what to keep and what to give up based on whether it brings joy into one’s life. Curiously, the underpinning of the Digital Minimalism movement is much the same: using technology deliberately in ways that increase our positive experience of real life (as opposed to any online experience).

And this got me to thinking that successful time management – and the resulting lack of feeling of time scarcity – is really about the same thing. Ultimately it’s about wisely choosing which things we wish to do, and then getting them done in such a fashion that we can enjoy the most out of all of life – our work, friends, family, nature, and hobbies.

Now you may very well be thinking that’s all well and good in theory, but how do we take such lofty goals off the metaphorical meditation mat and into real life?

I would posit that in this noisy, 24 hour news cycle, attention economy world we find ourselves in today, slowing down and being deliberate in our choices is a radical act. It’s a stand for reclaiming our innate joy and equanimity, finding our purpose and motivation, and building a community around us that can benefit from such deliberate focus and help us attain our goals.

One of my teachers talks about waiting until the last moment possible to make a decision or answer a question.

“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” - Lao Tzu

It seems to be that we are all paddling around frantically, unaware that it is ourselves who are stirring up the mud.

My January digital declutter was partially successful in letting the mud settle. I haven’t used social media in a month and I’ve found I really don’t miss it.

I’ve created great hacks for using Facebook for work needs with minimal exposure to its shiny distraction baubles and limited my total online social media presence to two 30 minute surgical strike sessions per week.  It’s made me acutely aware of which friends’ updates I miss the most and somewhat paradoxically made me keen to reach out to them in real life, while simultaneously making me hyper aware of how much more time I have available due to not scrolling any newsfeeds.

I’ve embraced the slow news cycle, reading the paper (gasp!) at the end of the week when the stories have all their details, and listening to NPR/BBC/Al Jazeera news podcasts to stay au courant. It has made me more aware of which news sources I missed (space industry news, ocean news) and which I am happy to do without (hysterical politicians and pundits desperately trying to make their careers mean something).

My carefully curated list of long-form articles to read on Saturday morning is far more satisfying than the hours of scrolling that preceded the declutter.  

I have successfully dumbed down my iPhone to phone/video calls, texts, audio and navigation only, and found that I don’t need the plethora of other apps that I thought I couldn’t do without.

I haven’t quite gotten to the point of tallying up the spending I’ve done in the App Store over the life of my iPhones and suspect that would be a painful number to me now that I realize it was all so unnecessary.  

I’ve reversed the creep of my to do list from a single place (paper planner) to multiple paces (planner + various reminder apps, project management apps and notes lists) and in doing so, regained a sense of available time.  

Most important of all I’ve lost the nervous tic of reaching for my phone the moment I wasn’t occupied with something else, or uncomfortable, or nervous. I’m no longer a Pavlovian slave to the dings and beeps of text and voice messages, in fact I have to remind myself of their existence.  I have felt more alive in every moment as a result, more fully present and aware of what’s happening around me. I can honestly say I feel that I’ve somehow *lived* more in the past month, without the digital distraction as a crutch. It feels amazing.

However, I wasn’t fully able to what Cal Newport calls the more important part of the digital declutter, which amounts to get outside, do stuff, preferably with friends, due to a nasty case of the ‘flu which is now dragging into its third week. Figuring that friends wouldn’t appreciate me showing up for walks or dinner with cough drops and hankie in hand, I’m waiting it out.

So I’m extending my digital declutter through the month of February, and kicking it up a notch. I’m going to try using a really dumb phone, the Nokia 3390, to see if that’s enough for calls and rudimentary texting, while using my Apple Watch for Uber, maps and directions as needed – it’s tiny screen makes it a poor distraction device (why didn’t Nokia put GPS on the resurrected 3390??? Major missed opportunity.)

I’m designing operations rules and hacks for a handful of apps that I need to use online (project management, etc) but the apps are not going back on my phone. I like the effect of walking away from online life when I walk away from the computer. As soon I’m not ‘flu contagious I will be getting outside, doing stuff and taking friends along.  I’ll report back next month on what I’ve found.

But back to taking these practices off the metaphorical mat and into real life. The first step of getting the mud settle is being willing to let go of boasting about how busy we are. Busy is not the same as being engaged in meaningful work.

I’ll talk about finding meaning in our work in a future blog, but for now, consider that after four consecutive days of doing anything our brains begin to recognize the pattern of the thing and prep for doing it again. We don’t build habits in four days, but our neural circuitry does begin to pay attention.

So I encourage you to take any one of the methods and tactics I’ve outlined in this four part series On Time Scarcity and try it for just four days, and see if you notice a difference.

I’d love to hear what you find. You can share with me by sending me a message.

Related Articles:

On Time Scarcity, 1: Don't Panic, Work The Plan
On Time Scarcity, 2: Strategic Choices In The Attention Economy
On Time Scarcity, 3: Wresting Back What's Yours


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